In Lebanon, the name Elias is nothing more than George or Josh and as common as Matthew here in the states. Unfortunately, growing up in Tennessee, however, that was not the case. I was pegged as exotic pretty early on, even with whitish skin. I would notice the teachers’ eyebrows advance in caution often before trying to annunciate my name. God bless them, but what is it about Southerners that give up on pronouncing something longer than a few simple syllables? Consequently, I was often called by the apathetic, “Eliza?”, “Ellis?”, “Elliot?”, or my personal favorite “Eel-li-ass?” (Thank you, Ms. Gonzalez).
Aside from becoming an outlier by having an unfamiliar name, it didn’t help that I thought it too girly a name. Oh, and how could I change that, I schemed? I thought I could go by Hatem, my middle name. At least, if said with haste, it sounded close to the name, Adam, of which I knew many of in Tennessee. As a little critter, I thought of all the self-improvement strategies to fit in with Tennessee: work out to make my biceps to be larger, straighten my hair to not be so noticeable, and practice speaking in a slower, deeper voice. Always, always, always I remember: Socialization is a tormentor.
Well, unfortunately, I shaved my head from the ages of 7 until, oh I don’t know, maybe 14? 15? Which only accented my youthhood. And even when my hair grew out, I still wanted straight hair. Maybe it was during that emo-scene phase, but I would sneak into my sister’s room while she was away, use her straightening iron, and with no idea as what I was doing, make a mockery of my head. In desperate attempts to ameliorate the circumstance, and inspired by my brother’s rat rod phase, I attempted slicking my hair back into a greaser’s pompadour. Realizing only then that curly hair is like a wildflower: happy as it is so don’t bother fucking with it. Through this experience, I stumbled upon some news my dad wouldn’t want to hear: I enjoyed working—no, playing—with my hair.
On a similar vein, I came to love the name Elias, for many reasons. But in the context of a Tennessee understanding, though traditionally a male name, it felt neutral enough depending on how someone pronounced it. Working out was a joke, as I forfeited quickly out of a disinterest in men’s gym shorts (too much swoosh) but mostly the act of going to a gym. And, as for my voice, well, as much as I tried to stay neutral, my laugh would sell me out; a gleeful crack often reached an offensive tone of giddiness. Everyone knew, or at least suspected, that I was just a pinch of a wonder. There was nothing wondersome for me. I just didn’t want to hear my voice.
Grumbles aside, it’s common, isn’t it? To not care for your own voice? At a certain point in my life, and really that’s a wide range of time to describe, I realized my main complaint wasn’t that my voice was difficult to listen to but that it was completely foreign to me. Maybe it was during an identity crisis, and this wasn’t long ago, either. It was some open mic, I believe, or maybe…well, who cares. Whatever the reason I was speaking through a mic. And out through the floor monitors, for the first time, I was able to hear my voice.
I remember being confused: How did my voice become so low? Is that an accent or a lisp? Who was this fairy speaking both like a child and an old soul at the same time? And dammit, out of some nervousness my laugh cracked and sprouted. Partly out of my own self-consciousness or maybe some surprise, I paused. Was that my laugh or someone else’s? Really, it sounded like my friend’s Conrad’s laugh, even to the point of his undulating hiccups. And that banter to which I spoke, wasn’t that Joseph’s cadence: lavishly elaborating everything as if discussing fine art? Whenever I agreed in a conversation, I sustained my yeah to a ten-letter word, just as my sister or my friend Katie would say; or exclaim like Tiana. If I was stumped by a question, I would become rigid like Jonathan. And when I needed to preface something with much grandeur, I would back up like my dear friend, Evan and her “Weelllll….” or preamble as if I were Nina and really set up the scene.
I must admit, I’m very impressionable. In many ways it’s hard to discern the parts of me from the parts of my friends that I carry. Though I certainly take on many of my friends’ mannerisms. It’s cute and, in my humble opinion, a form of flattery to imitate my friends. We are made up of everyone we’ve ever known. This isn’t anything novel of a thought, but rather a declaration of my gratitude to my friends, the ones who have influenced me greatly in my life. But it is a reminder, that I am never alone. That although there have been times where I have been afraid of being before a crowd, or speaking in general, now I have the support of all my friends within me. And now, self-aware as I am, I can be reminded of this every time I slip and sprinkle a little Jonathan or Lily into my talk.